Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Psychiatrist Chris Faber (Noel Coward) and his wife Barbara (Celia Johnson) seem to have a comfortable marriage, though it is hinted that the physical aspect of their relationship flickered out some time ago. While shopping one rainy afternoon, Barbara runs into her school friend Leonora (Margaret Leighton) and the two spend some time catching up. Barbara invites Leonora to visit and to meet her husband, and on the surface, they don't seem to hit it off, with Chris basically ignoring her. But some time later when Barbara is out of town visiting a sick relative and can't accompany Leonora to a play they had tickets for, Chris takes her instead, and a full-blown passion is sparked. When Chris invokes a Bible quote for a lecture he is giving ("The Lord shall smite thee with madness, blindness and astonishment of heart"), he doesn't seem to realize that it could apply to him. Soon Barbara figures out what's going on and actually encourages the two of them to go on a trip together, perhaps hoping that this fling will burn itself out, but it doesn't. Or, more to the point, Leonora seems to tire of Chris, flirting with other men, and Chris unravels to the point where he turns a therapy session with a patient into a way to vent about Leonora. When, during an argument, Leonora calls Chris "one of the dead," he knows things are over, and is driven to a desperate and tragic act.

This is inevitably compared to the classic British tearjerker BRIEF ENCOUNTER [3/24/06]: both are about average citizens tempted by an extramarital affair, both are based on plays by Noel Coward, and both feature Celia Johnson as the lead character. The differences, of course, are that in ENCOUNTER, Johnson is the tempted wife and she never actually consummates the affair; here, Johnson is the wronged wife whose husband not only has the affair but carries on with it with his wife's permission. There is no question that ENCOUNTER is the stronger film, but this one is not as weak as its reputation would have it. The role of the adulterous husband was originally assigned to Michael Redgrave, who would seem to have been perfect for it, but Coward didn't like his portrayal and so replaced him. Coward is a bit too old for the part; some viewers find his (mostly) passionless and aloof performance a weakness, but I think it fits the character. Redgrave would have done a better job being swept up into the affair, but Coward is excellent in the latter half of the film as a man who comes unraveled by his romantic obsession. Johnson (pictured with Coward) is fine, though her character loses some focus near the end, as is Leighton. The supporting actors who play the doctor's assistants deserve mention: Graham Payn—Coward's real-life partner—is Tim and Joyce Carey is Susan; both are likable, both have great sympathy for the doctor and his wife, and both have nicely nuanced character touches. At one point, when Susan notices Leonora eyeing Tim up and down, she says to Tim, "Don’t worry, I'm here to protect you," to which Tim replies, "Thanks" in a shaky voice. Is Tim shy, or gay, or both? Is Susan being sincere or snarky, or some combination of the two? Though Tim and Susan do pop up again, I wish they had more to do. Perhaps not a must-see, but worth catching if it crops up, which is doesn't do too often. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


Four astronauts are in a space probe, heading for a flyby mission around Mars. There’s Steve, the leader; the chipper co-pilot Charlie; the slightly older Doc; and Dorothy, the surprisingly non-buxom, non-glamorous token female. They're exchanging light banter and nonsense technical jargon when they wind up in the middle of a space storm, complete with (badly animated) lightning; they lose all communications with Earth and are pulled down to the surface of Mars, jettisoning their main stage and landing their capsule near a polar cap. Once on Mars, their watches all freeze, "as if time were forbidden on this world" (says one character in a bit of heavy foreshadowing). Receiving a signal from the main stage where there are supplies needed to survive, they set off across the planet to find it. Rafting along a canal, they fend off attacking water creatures; in an underground cavern, they avoid lava flows from a volcano. But the signal turns out to be coming from a small unmanned explorer probe sent to Mars years ago. However, it does contain liquid oxygen they can use to replace their dwindling supply. Next they find a gold-tiled road which leads them toward a gleaming red dome on the horizon, a deserted Martian city of antiquity. Inside, they communicate with a large, disembodied, translucent head, a composite being who is a kind of avatar of the remaining Martians. It seems that the Martians were somehow able to "impale" time and stay alive indefinitely, but now they've realized that it's death that gives meaning to life, and they need the astronauts to help them set time back in motion. Even assuming the astronauts can help, how will they get back to Earth?

The title, the central group of four characters (one named Dorothy) in search of something, the golden (yellow brick) road, and the floating see-through head all might suggest that this is an adaptation of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It is, but the similarities are all on the surface; I could find little in the plotpoints or the thematic concerns, except perhaps for the desire to return home, that match the 1939 movie. It was filmed on a low budget, but the special effects are actually rather good, or at least charming (except for those canal creatures which look like jagged chunks of plastic floating in water). There's been some interesting tinkering with color filters that makes the otherwise artificial sets look otherworldly. The lack of a real villain and the philosophizing that the Wizard (John Carradine in a role he probably filmed in an hour or so) indulges in make this stand out a bit from the average B-sci-fi movie of the era, and its electronic-ish soundtrack reminded me at times of the avant-garde music used in the later scenes of 2001. The writing is pretty bad with dialogue that sounds like it came from a beginning chapter book for kids, as when they see the golden road: "That looks like a long hike!"; "Well, I hope the hike leads us to something!" But the acting is mostly just adequate, with the best coming from Jerry Rannow (pictured, who went on to become a sit-com writer) as cute little Charlie, the only character who makes much of an impression. (The odd overdubbing of Dorothy's lines makes hash of the performance of Eve Bernhardt as Dorothy.) Not a great film, but a pleasant surprise. Also released on video as ALIEN MASSACRE (a very misleading title) and on YouTube as HORRORS OF THE RED PLANET. [YouTube]

Friday, May 18, 2018


A body is found floating in the water off the docks; he has no ID on him, but the police figure out it is probably a Dutch jeweler named Vandermeer who was known to deal in stolen property. A card from Victor Skinner's nightclub is found on the body with the name of a fence named Otto written on the back. Inspector Cathie sees a chance to pin something on Skinner, a notorious underworld figure, so he sends his agent Alex James to the nightclub with a made-up criminal background to infiltrate Skinner's circle. As Alex slowly wins Skinner's trust, he gets to know Rose, an employee, and her brother Philip, a musician in the club band who drinks too much (and therefore lets some things slip that he shouldn't). It turns that Skinner and his henchman, a nasty piece of work called Snowy (for Snow White, as he's a bit on the albino side), run a burglary ring; waiters overhear when their high-toned patrons will be out of their homes and tell members of Skinner's gang  who break in and steal jewels which they sell to Otto the fence. A triangle develops between Alex and Rose and Snowy, which complicates things as the cops come closing in. The critical take on this crime thriller is that it's rather drab and slow, but I found it about par for the course for a British B-film of the era, and I give it extra points for good performances by Dermot Walsh as Alex, Guy Verney as the twitchy Snow White, and especially Sydney Tafler as Skinner. Based on a novel by Nicolas Bentley who was apparently better known as a cartoonist and illustrator. At one point, Skinner calls Alex a “narc,” which is one of the earliest uses of that phrase that I know of. Pictured are Derek Blomfield (as Philip) and Tafler. [You Tube]

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

RED LIGHT (1949)

In San Francisco, John Torno (George Raft), prosperous owner of a freight line, is happy to welcome his younger brother Jess, a military chaplain, back from overseas; he's staying in a hotel until he leaves for his next assignment. But in San Quentin, Nick Cherney (Raymond Burr) an accountant for Torno's company who was caught embezzling, makes a deal with fellow inmate Rocky (Harry Morgan), about to be released, to kill Jess for revenge. When Rocky confronts Jess in his hotel room, he says, "I got a present from Nick," and shoots him. John arrives in time to hear Jess' last words: "…written in Bible…" Later, John realizes that the message must be in the Gideon's Bible left in the hotel room, but when he goes back to the room, it's missing. John decides to track down the five people to have had that room since Jess' death and get the Bible. The first person is Carla North (Virginia Mayo); in a bizarre coincidence, they discover that her late brother was in Jess' platoon, so she offers to help John track down the rest. Meanwhile, Nick is now out of prison and goes to John's assistant Warni (Gene Lockhart) to ask for a second chance. He doesn't get it, but he does manage to make contact with John again. Warni assumes he's in the clear until Rocky lets it slip that he mentioned Nick's name as he shot Jess. Nick now realizes that his name might be written in that Bible, and after disposing of Rocky, he goes after the Bible himself.

Despite the occasional plot hole problem, this is a terrific little film noir. I'm not really a fan of George Raft, but here his woodenness passes for a stoicism barely masking his grief; this may be his best 40s role. Critics praise Burr, rightfully, for his brutally nasty performance but Morgan is no slouch as a slimy thug. Virginia Mayo has been growing on me lately and she's good here. A young Arthur Franz is fine in the small role of the brother and the always welcome familiar faces of Arthur Shields, Stanley Clements (the street kid who's always busting Bing Crosby's chops in GOING MY WAY), Barton MacLane and William Frawley show up. Victor Sen Yung, who played Charlie Chan's son Jimmy in many Chan films, shows up as Raft's valet. But perhaps the best moment in the movie belongs to Gene Lockhart. Known mostly for comic or light parts, here he goes more serious as Raft's assistant, and he gives it all he's got in a dramatic night scene in which he's chased down in a freight truck yard by Burr. Interestingly, the movie has a religious theme, which is embodied in the film's epigraph, "Man proposes, God disposes," and in a Biblical quote used later, "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." The slightly nutty finale, which is good enough not to spoil here, cements that theme. Religious noir may be a one-movie genre, and for that reason alone, this is worth watching. But that title? No idea what it means. Pictured are Burr and Morgan. [TCM]

Monday, May 14, 2018


At the opening of this early sound musical, set in England in 1793, Kitty Bellairs is riding in a coach from London to Bath. She and her fellow passengers (including the young and handsome but shy Lord Varney) introduce themselves to each other in song, but a masked highwayman stops the coach, declaring, "Your bank notes interest me more than the notes of your song." He makes them get out of the coach and takes their money, but after he flirts with Kitty, he gives back their loot in exchange for one kiss from her. In Bath, where the townspeople and shopkeepers begin their day in song (like the villagers in Disney's Beauty and the Beast), Kitty stays with her sister Julia and her older husband Sir Jasper. The two are in the middle of a bad patch, as he has become inattentive and in response, she has become distant, and Kitty suggests that she try to make him jealous. Meanwhile, the highwayman sends Kitty a love letter and a lock of his hair, but Sir Jasper finds it and assumes it was sent to Julia, which does in fact rouse his jealousy. Kitty winds up balancing the attentions of not only the highwayman and Lord Vareny but also a Captain O'Hara whom she meets at a ball. After a duel (fought between two older men in sedan chairs), the threat of a second one, and bedroom trickery, all shakes out for the best.

This is an interesting oddity. Made as the early musicals were falling out of fashion, this was not a success and is rarely screened today, but at just over an hour, it’s actually a nice pre-Code treat. It feels like the Paramount musicals of the early 30s such as LOVE ME TONIGHT or ONE HOUR WITH YOU (and at times, the group songs are reminiscent of the numbers in the early Marx Brothers films), and occasionally, it threatens to turn into an operetta. The songs are OK if not especially memorable, except for the lovely "I’ve Been Waiting for You" duet with Kitty and Lord Varney. Due to the technical limitations of the original soundtrack, the lyrics can be hard to decipher, but the narrative is easy to follow. Claudia Dell (Kitty) made a lot of movies in the early 30s but never really hit stardom, though she’s quite charming here. A young Walter Pidgeon (Varney, picured with Dell) is handsome and has a pleasant singing voice. The blustery Ernest Torrence (Jasper) acquits himself well both comically and musically. Perry Askham, whose career did not last, is O'Hara and an actor with the unusual name of Rolfe Sedan has a nice moment as an effeminate confidante of Kitty's who, with a glint in his eye, urges her to go for "the manly man." Pleasant fun, of interest mostly to film buffs. [TCM]

Friday, May 11, 2018


An offsceen voice introduces an odd semi-musical tone accompanied by the thumping of a heartbeat and warns us that, if we're squeamish, we may want to close our eyes when we hear those sounds. Next, we see a man (Lawrence Payne) walking nervously through a house, hearing an amplified thumping—he smashes a metronome on a piano, then sees a square of rug on the floor throb up and down, which sets him to screaming. Cut to Edgar Allen Poe (also Payne) in his rooms on the Rue Morgue in Paris woken from this nightmare by his friend (Dermot Walsh); Poe takes a calming snort of cocaine and heads to his writing desk, apparently to write out this nightmare. The rest of the movie is the story of Edgar Marsh (yes, Lawrence Payne), a shy and lonely librarian with a limp whose drab life is shaken up when a lovely young woman named Betty (Adrienne Corri) moves in to an apartment across the street from him. He spies on her from his window and pays an awkward visit to her at the flower shop where she works. His only friend Carl (Dermot Walsh) encourages him to be more forthright with the young lady, and he takes that advice; soon, they are dating and Edgar actually seems to be happy, but he is oblivious to the fact that, when Betty and Carl meet, sparks fly. One night, while looking out his window, Edgar sees the two in a passionate embrace and something snaps. The next evening when Carl visits, Edgar goes crazy and beats the shit out of him with a poker, killing him and hiding the body under the floorboards beneath his piano. Ah, now those familiar with the title short story by Poe know where this is going: Edgar begins hearing the beating of Carl's dead heart—the movie's opening sequence is repeated here—and even opening up the floor, ripping out Carl's heart and burying it outside doesn't make the sound go away. Meanwhile, Betty gets suspicious and reports Carl as a missing person, though the police aren't inclined to worry as he is known to be a free soul who might leave town for days. But when the police inspector finds out that Carl was last seen in the company of Edgar, he gets suspicious.

This movie hadn't even been on my radar before I came across it during a random search for "classic horror" on Amazon Prime Video. Made in England in 1960 (but not released in the States until 1962), it seems to be striving for the feel of Roger Corman's Poe films but only one of those films (HOUSE OF USHER) had been released before this movie; it's much less glossy than the Corman movies, or even the British Hammer films of the era so the timing feels more like coincidence. The opening plays out strangely: the character played by Payne is clearly referred to as Poe, but in the story proper, he is called Edgar Marsh. By the end, we know that the central narrative is Poe's dream, though there is a clever little kicker at the end, but the opening clearly confused some critics who think referring to the story as a dream is a spoiler. If you're actually paying attention to the first five minutes, it's not a spoiler, though by the time you get to the end of this 80-minute movie, you may have forgotten the frame story and be surprised by the dream ending. The acting is solid all around. All three leads were somewhat familiar to me: Payne (pictured) from THE CRAWLING EYE, Corri as Patrick Magee's wife in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and Walsh from "Matakitas Is Coming," a particularly creepy episode of the 60s British anthology show Journey to the Unknown. For a 1960 movie, it's got a couple of surprisingly graphic moments, one involving the title heart and another when one of the characters falls to his death from a staircase. For classic horror fans, this is a treat. [Amazon Video]

Wednesday, May 09, 2018


The townspeople of the village of Argenson are excited about a visit from Emperor Napoleon III—they have erected a grand Triumphal Arch on the road into town, though when the mail coach goes under it, the arch comes tumbling down. The town officials are a bit put out by the Emperor's unexpected absences as he goes off flirting with Zelie, a businesswoman and widow of three years (she was only married three months) who is just now putting her mourning clothes away. The Emperor assumes her experience has been "three months of happiness, three years of regret," but she says it's more like "three months of regret, three years of happiness," and assures him she is "rich, free and happy." We soon discover that the town is split into two factions: the Shop (led by Zelie) and Society, exemplified by the prefect's wife Hortense. Despite this tension, Zelie and Hortense are friends, and tied together by the fact that Hortense is engaged in a long-distance affair with Parisian attorney Francois, and she has him send love letters to her but addressed to Zelie who passes them along. But things are about to get more complicated when Francois is appointed to the position of DA in Argenson, with an assignment to cuckold the prefect who himself cuckolded the previous DA. Not to mention that one of the love letters has gone astray. There are many merry mix-ups leading up to the climactic ball where Hortense plans on humiliating the Shop folks by having the Society folks learn to dance the quadrille, leaving Zelie and her friends on the sideline. However, Zelie gets wind of this and hires the same dance master to teach her and her Shop friends the same dance.

This French film is a delightful confection, not quite farcical but certainly comically complex, which manages to mock class, ambition and the sexes all at once. Despite its real-world concerns with gender and class, its tone is generally light as meringue; produced during the German occupation, anything stronger would surely have been censored. Speaking of censoring, this film, with its many adulterous flings, would never have passed Hollywood code muster, but that fluffy tone mixed with mildly naughty content is part of what makes this quite watchable today. I'd never heard of any of the actors, but there are at least two wonderful discoveries here: Odette Joueux as Zelie and Francois Perier as Francois, both of whom are talented and attractive, and both pictured above. The director, Claude Autant-Lara, is probably best known today for the original 1947 DEVIL IN THE FLESH. I saw this as part of a 4-DVD set of films that Autant-Lara directed during the occupation, and I hope to get around to the others soon. My favorite line, during the final ball: "We dance on a volcano of cordiality!" [DVD]

Thursday, May 03, 2018


Johnny Strange runs the private eye agency Action Incorporated—and seems to be the only agent—and is on the phone placing an ad for a secretary, someone who is "blonde, beautiful, between 22 and 28, unmarried, with a skin you love to touch and a heart you can't," and in the middle of the phone call, in walks Gerry Smith, who wants the job and seems to fit the bill. After some snappy dialogue between the two, she's hired, and the first phone call she takes involves a woman with a foreign accent who wants Johnny to meet her at her house. When he arrives, he finds the woman, wearing a dark veil, with the dead body of her husband, a radio commentator named Fitch. She first offers him money to hide the corpse, then knocks him out and makes it look like Johnny killed Fitch. Lucky for Johnny, Gerry followed him to the house so when the police come, she tells them that she saw Johnny kill Fitch in self-defense. Johnny doesn't know why Gerry didn't tell what actually happened. As we know, what really happened is that Gerry was the mysterious woman, wearing a disguise. It turns out that Gerry's sister was being blackmailed by Fitch, and Gerry herself becomes the target of a blackmail attempt by Fitch's gardener who saw everything and found Gerry's discarded disguise.  Also involved are a chanteuse named Rhoda who collected gossip tips for Fitch, and her lover, club owner and gangster Duke York. Ultimately, Johnny gathers all the suspects and interested parties at Fitch's house for a reenactment of Fitch's final day, broadcast over the radio.

This B-mystery is ambitious but can't quite pull off the complicated story and would-be multilayer characters. For example, the ambiguities about what side Gerry is on are muddled. Still, at under an hour, it's mostly fun. B-player Warren Douglas gets a rare lead here and is fine, as is Adele Mara as Gerry (both pictured above). Ricardo Cortez, always a welcome presence, is Duke, William Frawley is the investigating cop, and Virginia Christie is Rhoda. The radio broadcast at the end, inspired equally by Agatha Christie and Charlie Chan, is pulled off a little awkwardly, but the whole thing has a breezy tone and goes by quickly. [Streaming]

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

THE PAGAN (1929)

This silent film (with some synchronized sound effects and a couple of songs) is set on an island "in the farthest reaches of the Pacific" where, as the title cards tell us, "a struggling half-breed city has risen to meet the ruthless march of commerce” and that “when East meets West, the result is six barrooms and one bank”—which pretty much tells you the attitude expressed here about the natives. Slater (Donald Crisp) arrives on the island looking for a source for coconuts. He goes to see young Henry Shoesmith Jr. (Ramon Novarro), a "half-breed" whose Anglo father was a friend of Slater's. Henry has a small store but there is very little on the shelves and the clerk spends his time napping. Slater sees Henry as a lazy pagan (we first see Henry lolling about bare-chested with Madge, the island's feisty prostitute), but Henry is also good-hearted and trusting, and he gives Slater access to his coconut trees for free. A spark develops between Henry and Slater's young and lovely ward Tito (Dorothy Janis), a half-breed orphan whom Slater calls his "Christian duty." But Slater, who is training Tito to be "all-white" in her behavior and appearance, calls Henry a "sun-baked pagan" and warns him to stay away from Tito unless he makes something of himself. After Slater and Tito leave the island, Henry takes Slater's remark to heart and borrows money from the bank to jumpstart his store. He's a success but he extends so much credit to the islanders that he can't pay back his loan, so when Slater and Tito return, Slater still won't let him see Tito. In fact, Slater is so paranoid that he arranges to marry Tito himself. With some help from the hooker with a heart of gold, Henry makes one last attempt at making Tito his sweetheart.

This is a fun and interesting movie for a number of reasons. The first 15 minutes are chock-full of casually racist stereotypes about non-whites. The islanders are depicted as lazy heathens, and Slater clearly believes that the "half-breeds" should be trying to better themselves by becoming more "white" in their outlook. Of course, by the middle of the movie, Slater is a full-out villain, reminiscent of the self-righteous preacher of Somerset Maugham's RAIN, and ultimately the message of the film seems to largely subvert the impressions of the opening, if only to say that West should co-exist with East without trying to change its culture. In this pre-Code film, the pagans wind up presented in a positive light and the Christian Western figure becomes a vicious bully with an incestuous twist—Tito is not literally his daughter, but he is her adoptive father, and the sight of the two of them standing at the wedding altar approaches the sight of John Huston and his granddaughter in the final moments of CHINATOWN. (BTW, Slater meets a delicious and deserved fate.)  Still, it's a little weird to hear Madge tell Henry, in trying to get him to rescue Tito, "White men fight for their women—natives *take* their women!" The movie was shot on location in Tahiti and looks fabulous, and director Woody Van Dyke brings a lot of energy to the exterior scenes.

The acting is of a high order all around. Novarro is at his matinee idol peak here; in fact, it's not the women who are objectified here but Novarro, especially in a "female gaze" shot in which the camera pans along his shirtless body as he lies in repose. He overdoes the snarky facial expression here and there but otherwise is fine, as is Dorothy Janis as Tito—she looks remarkably like a dark-haired Stevie Nicks (pictured with Novarro at left). Renee Adoree steals all her scenes as the friendly whore. Crisp is properly stiff and unlikeable as the white trader, and he does a good job early on in a couple of scenes in which you think he will soften his prejudiced views. Though silent, there are sound effects, and Novarro sings "Pagan Love Song" at least three times—it becomes a kind of code between him and Tito. The first time, the synchronization is off (at least in the print I saw) but the other two times, it's fine. A dated but enjoyable bit of pre-Code social criticism disguised as an exotic romance. [TCM]